Mummy wars?

There was a good article in the Guardian last week by Po Bronson on ‘the mummy wars’ (http://money.guardian.co.uk/workweekly/story/0,,1794292,00.html). This looked at the arguments between working mothers and stay at home mothers about which form of motherhood was better. Bronson asked why the arguments were so heated when there was actually so little difference in practice between the two sides – most mothers are not putting their children into day care full-time and the results for children are not overwhelmingly different.

This got me thinking about who was actually doing the warring – and I’m not convinced that it is mainly down to mothers (who usually have much of their time and energy absorbed by more urgent matters, like reading stories and trying to get their children to eat their vegetables and not pick their nose). Instead, this argument seems to me to be driven by rather different interest groups.

On the stay at home side (or rather, the anti-working mother side), there is a peculiar alliance. On the one hand, there’s the expected group of traditionalists who think mothers shouldn’t be working. There are two main sub-divisions of this group – religious (God wants mothers to stay at home) and evolutionary/biological (mothers really want to stay at home), but there’s not much difference between their outlook in practice.

However, in the stay at home alliance, they have some unlikely allies in the child-centred experts. There are some fairly eminent child psychologists (Penelope Leach, Steve Biddulph etc) who aren’t naturally right-wing, but who end up advocating much the same position. Essentially, they work from the assumption that what really matters is what is best for the baby/child (fair enough), but with the unspoken addition: regardless of its effects on the parents. You only have to read some of the dogmatic statements (and they are very dogmatic) about breastfeeding to realise that the wellbeing of mothers is secondary to them.

In theory such experts aren’t sexist: they support either parent doing the nurturing. However they call for extended periods of demand-led breastfeeding and for the pre-school child to be away from a parent (or a close relative) for only very short periods a day. So in practice, unless you’re unusually lucky in your job and family circumstances, this means full-time motherhood for at least four years.

The other side in the ‘mummy wars’, the anti-stay at home mother side, is usually seen vaguely to be lead by ‘feminists’. In fact, while feminists are positive about working mothers and want to support them, I’m not convinced that many feminists are actually hostile to stay-at-home mothers. A lot of them (like myself) wouldn’t personally want to be full-time mothers and there’s a fair bit of low-level sniping about the boring nature of being at home with children and its effect on your outlook. But I can’t think of many feminists who argue that women shouldn’t be stay at home mothers.

What really drives the anti full-time mothers, I would say, is capitalism and its supporters. The current government, for example, doesn’t like the thought of mothers not in paid employment and is clearly not interested in providing support for them. Similarly, the ‘feminists’ who really oppose stay at home mothers are people like Linda Hirshman (see my comments in Dec 2005/Jan 2006) who have completely absorbed the values of capitalism and think that the only measure of a worthwhile job is that it highly paid.

Given these powerful interest groups involved in the mummy wars, I don’t think they’re going to vanish any time soon. But I think mothers should be wary of getting involved – it’s not clear that any of these groups have really got our interests at heart.

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